Federal agencies convened a meeting in Utqiaġvik last week about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. North Slope leaders expressed frustration because it was scheduled with a short notice and during the subsistence harvest period.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held on Sept. 25 a public meeting regarding the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Coastal Plain — the 1,563,500-acre oil and gas program area located along the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Congress in 2017 approved oil and gas leasing in the refuge’s coastal plain, which the federal government estimated to contain billions of barrels of oil. In 2021, the Biden administration suspended the leases, saying that an environmental review of the program contained legal deficiencies and a completion of a comprehensive analysis of potential environmental impacts is needed.
Last month, the Interior Department canceled leases within the coastal plain, asserting that the ANWR lease sale held in 2021 violated federal law.
The Coastal Plain Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement became available online on Sept. 8, and on Sept. 18, BLM posted the public meeting announcement for Utqiaġvik.
The goal of the public meeting was to share information about the draft SEIS and a range of alternative projects, as well as to get public comment on the draft and explain how to submit comments outside of the meeting, said Emma Roach, communications director with BLM in Alaska.
Ten people attended, including representatives from the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, and the city of Utqiagvik, Roach said.
According to Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a nonprofit corporation that strives to create a communication network amongst Arctic Slope communities, the exact date and time of the Utqiaġvik meeting wasn’t posted until Sept. 20, and the time wasn’t sufficient to notify the residents, especially considering an active whaling season in the region.
“The meeting proceeded despite multiple requests by North Slope tribal leaders and citizens to reschedule due to minimal notice of only two business days, community members participating in fall subsistence activities, and other previously scheduled community events happening at the same time,” Voice of the Arctic representatives said in a press release last week.
North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. said in a statement that he wasn’t able to attend because of another event with constituents.
“This administration has made it a talking point to state that Indigenous voices are heard, including on issues like respecting Indigenous subsistence traditions and having a seat at the table through consistent communication and consultation,” Brower said in a statement. “Then why were we given minimal notice for Monday’s public meeting?”
Doreen Leavitt, Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope Council Secretary and Director of Natural Resources, said that residents also did not have enough time to read through the 1,400 pages of the Draft SEIS, released 12 days prior to the meeting and before the Internet services were restored in the region, following a subsea fiber cable cut.
“BLM did not honor our request to reschedule to later next month, a timeframe that would have taken into account our Indigenous and traditional ways that we have practiced since time immemorial,” Leavitt added.
The agencies selected this date after coordinating with their tribal cooperating agency in the area, Roach said.
“Together we considered a range of dates and selected Sept. 25, as it was before whaling season was scheduled to begin,” Roach said. “We are working with local organizations to identify a date for a second public meeting in Utqiaġvik.”
Other meetings regarding the draft SEIS for the coastal plain are announced for Fairbanks, Kaktovik and Fort Yukon. Three more upcoming meetings will be virtual.
The agencies are also accepting comments online and through the mail.
Roach added that “BLM and FWS welcome the opportunity for formal nation-to-nation consultations in this process, which can happen at any time and do not need to be tied to a specific comment period or project.”